Who Should Be Allowed to Compete as a Female Athlete?

Should the size and shape of a woman’s breasts be considered factors in whether she is allowed to participate in elite athletic competitions like the Olympic Games? It sounds a bit ridiculous, but since 2011, breast size and shape have helped determine whether a woman may have testosterone levels deemed too high to be allowed to compete with other women.

That all changed on Monday when the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Swiss-based organization that settles disputes within international sport, suspended the testosterone policy of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which oversees track and field. The ruling is the latest development in efforts by sports officials to figure out a scientifically valid and procedurally fair way to determine an athlete’s eligibility to compete as a man or a woman in elite sports.

After more than 50 years of missteps in trying to implement policies that were variously deeply flawed and well meaning, the sports community finally has a chance to get the male/female eligibility question right.

This week’s decision was in response to a complaint filed by Dutee Chand, a talented young Indian sprinter, who one year ago had been ruled ineligible to compete because of a reported level of natural testosterone that exceeded the 2011 regulations governing hyperandrogenism, a condition that can lead to high levels of that hormone.

Decision makers often look to science to provide clear-cut answers to difficult questions of policy. In this case, the question was, who is a female for purposes of elite athletic competition?

Unfortunately, science is pluralistic and the world is complicated. The court of arbitration found this out in a hurry. “The expert witnesses each relied on different published papers to support his or her view” and “no single study has established, to an appropriate level of certainty, a scientific basis to come to a definitive conclusion one way or the other,” the court said.

Yet, the court agreed that testosterone could, potentially, be used for purposes of eligibility. The problem of course is that many other physical characteristics could also be used, like chromosomal makeup, the presence of reproductive organs or even height, but each of these markers is problematic.

So, too, is testosterone. The court found that high testosterone did not necessarily offer performance benefits so large as to justify creating “a new category of ineligible female athletes within the female category” and are thus “discriminatory.”

Thus, as the court put it, the I.A.A.F. finds itself “in the invidious position of having to reconcile the existence of a binary male/female system of athletics categorization with the biological reality that sex in humans is a continuum with no clear or singular boundary between men and women.”

The court suspended the testosterone rule for two years and will reinstate it only if the I.A.A.F. can prove that women with high testosterone benefit from a performance advantage so significant that they should be excluded from competing against other women. This does not appear to be in the cards.

So a new eligibility policy is needed. What should it be?

An obvious answer starts with realizing that science cannot provide answers in black and white when the world is colored in shades of gray.

Instead, we should look at the male/female categorization in terms of gender rather than sex. Sex is biology, gender is a social construction. An analogy to using gender to determine eligibility can be found in the idea of nationality, also a social construction. Sports bodies have rigorous rules for determining who gets to represent what nation in competition and for those who wish to change their eligibility. “Anything goes” is not allowed.

At the core of a new policy should be the principle that any elite athlete who, as in the case of Ms. Chand, participates consistently as a female in junior competitions, and continues to do so following puberty in senior-level competitions, should not have their eligibility questioned. Full stop. There is no need to subject her to biological tests or examine her breasts.

In its decision the court of arbitration stated the obvious: “Dutee Chand is a woman.” That is plenty enough justification for her to participate in female events in elite competition. It is time to face what the evidence is telling us — science can’t answer this question, but we still can.

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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